KEVIN LEININGER: The law is always slower than technology, but city’s drone proposal is a good first step

Drones are increasingly common in downtown areas, and the Fort Wayne Police want to know who's flying them. (AP photo)
The Fort Wayne Police Departments operates its own drones, as officers Mike Hickman, left, and James Rowland demonstrate. (News-Sentinel.cm file photo)
Jonathan Bowers
Kevin Leininger

Look — up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane!

No, and it’s not Superman either, silly. It’s increasingly likely to be a drone, which is why a proposed city law wants to know who’s flying them, and where.

“The numbers are staggering. It’s a huge, burgeoning field,” said Lt. John Bowers, who as a member of the Fort Wayne Police Department would be among those responsible for enforcing the ordinance to be introduced at Tuesday’s City Council meeting that would require people operating the small remotely controlled flying objects near downtown or public events to notify police in advance or face a $500 fine.

“When drones are flying during the fireworks or downtown festivals, it doesn’t take much to fall and perhaps lacerate someone. We crafted this to be a minimal burden, not a revenue generator,” Bowers said, referring to laws in other jurisdictions that require operators to pay a registration fee or buy a license.

Although the Federal Aviation Administration already limits the use of drones at night or near airports and other secure areas, Bowers said enforcement is often left to local officials who, at this point, have no jurisdiction over drones operating outside areas governed by the FAA. This law would change that, allowing the police (in theory, at least), to know who is operating drones within 500 feet of a public event or within 5,500 feet of the downtown core, defined as the 100 block of West Main Street. The ordinance was crafted with the help of Allen Superior Court Executive and drone aficionado John McGauley.

There are no available statistics about the number of drones that are operating locally or problems caused by them, but Bowers’ observation of their growing popularity is far more than supposition. Three years ago about 788,600 drones were operating in the United States, but that number had increased to 1.1 million by the end of 2017 and that number is expected to swell to anywhere between 2.4 million and 7 million within the next year or so. There are already more than 122,000 commercial drone pilots and 878,000 hobbyists, and the drone industry is expected to generate $82 million in annual revenues by 2025.

Nearly everybody is using them, it seems: police, the military, farmers, businesses, journalists, realtors and the aforementioned hobbyists. Voyeurs like them too, of course, but there are already laws to prevent or punish hi-tech, high-altitude window peeping.

Despite the lack of local documentation, Bowers’ concern over the possibility of drone-related injury is justified by painful experience elsewhere. In 2014 a drone crashed into the face of a Brooklyn photographer during a TGI Fridays promotion, clipping her nose and cutting her chin. That same year a drone was photographing a triathlon in Australia when it crashed into a runner, causing a head wound. In 2013 a drone crashed into the stands during a “bull run” in Virginia. Even a cursory scan of the Internet will yield plenty more.

Would the proposed ordinance prevent such accidents? Not necessarily, since it would give police no authority to weed out potentially dangerous operators or determine when air space over specific events is in danger of being oversaturated by drones. But it would put operators on notice that they could be held accountable should anything go wrong, possibly deterring problems in the first place. And because many drones are registered at the time of purchase, a drone operator who refuses to notify the city would not necessarily escape identification should the machine cause injury or damage.

Attorneys in some parts of the country already view drone injuries as a growth industry. The website classaction.com has a section devoted to drone liability, and the Utah-based law office of Robert J. DeBry Associates claims “drones are 100 times more likely to crash into a person, animal, structure or vehicle than a regular aircraft.”

Whether the ordinance would produce tangible safety benefits remains to be seen, but it is a worthy and relatively unobtrusive first step. Technology always evolves more rapidly than the law’s ability to punish those who misuse it, but if council passes the bill and a drone clips you in the head at this summer’s Three Rivers Festival, at least you’ll have a chance of finding out who’s responsible.

And because notification information generated by the law would be made available on line, so will your lawyer.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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